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[ RESEARCH INTEGRITY ] November 13, 2023

How retractions turn into scandals

How did retractions shift from being constructive correction methods to making headlines across the world? Let's explore this transformation.

The history of retractions

Throughout the history of science, retractions were infrequent until the 20th century when the process became more formalized.

In 2002, scientific journals retracted just 119 papers. Fast forward two decades, and Retraction Watch shocked the community by reporting nearly 5,000 retractions.

While retractions are often associated with bad intentions, fraud, and misconduct, a large proportion of retractions are simply errors, mistakes, or rushed science. Analyzing retractions in the journal Science from 1983 to 2017, it was found that 51% of papers were retracted due to honest errors. Similarly, research by Brainard revealed that nearly 40% of retractions in the Retraction Watch Database seemed to result from honest mistakes.

 Science is an iterative process, filled with learning, adaptation, and self-correction. However, the negative perception attached to retractions inhibits our ability to acknowledge and rectify our mistakes, stifling progress. This can lead to journals and societies being less transparent about retractions to safeguard their reputation or financial interests, allowing misinformation to persist. This negative stigma may also deter individuals who have made honest errors from proactively retracting their work when they discover a mistake, a practice vital for preserving the integrity of the scientific record.

So, how can we reevaluate the genuine value of retractions and dismantle the stigma that surrounds them?


Retractions in the COVID-19 era

During the pandemic, science took center stage, with global collaboration aimed at helping the world understand this disease.

In 2020, The Lancet, an esteemed journal, published a study concerning COVID-19 patients treated with hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), a drug that had been promoted by then-President Donald Trump. The study's findings were suggesting that the drug was linked to irregular heartbeats and reduced survival rates among hospitalized patients. This led to the abrupt suspension of major drug trials.

But days later, the Lancet study was quickly yanked from the scholarly record. It was a jaw-dropping retraction due  to fraudulent data provided by Surgisphere, a small Chicago-based tech company. The headlines asked questions like, "Just How Historic Is the Latest Covid-19 Science Meltdown?" and blared statements like "The Lancet, world's most credible medical journal whose trust has been hit by HCQ scandal."

Yet, the media's fixation on sensationalized  reporting shifted the spotlight away from the true villain, which was the misconduct that led to the retraction. Rather than regarding retractions as blemishes on the scientific record, they should be recognized as vital instruments in preserving the integrity of research.

It's important for us as a community to address the real-world consequences of misinformation, but the emphasis should be on drawing lessons and critical insights, rather than dwelling on the negative aspects or causing embarrassment to reputable journals.


Reviving the reputation of retractions

To reduce the frequency of retractions, we must first shed our fear of them. It's high time for a paradigm shift within our industry when it comes to handling retractions. Rather than viewing them as fatal flaws, we should reframe our perspective, recognizing that retractions serve as crucial stepping stones in the landscape of scientific progress.

As we work on reviving retractions, it's important to stop their spread and continued citation. To achieve this, we must adopt proactive measures before publication, such as conducting citation reviews for retracted content. Morressier is the only automated submission service to provide preflight checks, as well as flagging over-citations and the citing of retracted papers.



Morressier provides cutting-edge solutions designed to proactively detect integrity concerns before publication, allowing you to avoid downstream complications.

We draw inspiration from the self-corrective of retractions in our innovative workflows. Learn more about how we design our solutions to uphold the highest levels of integrity.

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